Is naming stars legal?

For this new Space Law article on Space Legal Issues, we have asked ourselves the following question: is naming stars legal? There are services which will let you name a star in the sky after a loved one. You can commemorate a special day, or the life of an amazing person. But can you really name a star? Is it legal? For a century, the International Astronomical Union has been the internationally recognised authority for naming celestial bodies and surface features on them. And names are not sold, but assigned according to internationally accepted rules.

Names of astronomical objects are agreed upon by the International Astronomical Union. If this name sounds familiar, it’s the same people who voted that Pluto is not a planet. There are a few stars with traditional names which have been passed down through history. Names like Betelgeuse, Sirius, or Rigel. Others were named in the last few hundred years for highly influential astronomers. These are the common names, agreed upon by the astronomical community.

Most stars, especially dim ones, are only given coordinates and a designation in a catalogue. There are millions and millions of stars out there with a long string of numbers and letters for a name. There’s the Gliese Catalog of Nearby Stars, or the Guide Star Catalogs, which contain nine hundred and forty-five million stars.

The International Astronomical Union

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) was founded in 1919. Its mission is to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy in all its aspects, including research, communication, education and development, through international cooperation. Its individual Members — structured into Divisions, Commissions, and Working Groups — are professional astronomers from all over the world, who are active in professional research, education and outreach in astronomy. In addition, the IAU collaborates with various scientific organisations all over the world.

The long-term policy of the International Astronomical Union is defined by the General Assembly and implemented by the Executive Committee, while day-to-day operations are directed by the IAU Officers. The focal point of its activities is the IAU Secretariat, hosted by the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris in France.

Among the tasks of the IAU are the definition of fundamental astronomical and physical constants; unambiguous astronomical nomenclature and informal discussions on the possibilities for future international large-scale facilities. Furthermore, the IAU serves as the internationally recognised authority for assigning designations to celestial bodies and surface features on them. Celestial nomenclature has long been a controversial topic. At its inaugural meeting in 1922 in Rome, the IAU standardised the constellation names and abbreviations. More recently, IAU Committees or Working Groups have certified the names of astronomical objects and features.

The IAU has been the arbiter of planetary and satellite nomenclature since its inception in 1919. The various IAU Working Groups normally handle this process, and their decisions primarily affect the professional astronomers. But from time to time, the IAU takes decisions and makes recommendations on issues concerning astronomical matters affecting other sciences or the public. Such decisions and recommendations are not enforceable by any national or international law; rather, they establish conventions that are meant to help our understanding of astronomical objects and processes. Hence, IAU recommendations should rest on well-established scientific facts, and have a broad consensus in the community concerned.

The eight major planets in our Solar System and Earth’s satellite have official IAU names. The names of the major planets were already in common use when the IAU formed in 1919, however, the names of the planets have been included in wording for IAU resolutions multiple times since the IAU’s founding, and these names can be considered formally adopted by the IAU membership. While there are cultural names for the planets and Earth’s satellite in other languages, there are classic names for the major planets and Moon.

Is naming stars legal?

Is naming stars possibly legal? The International Astronomical Union frequently receives requests from individuals who want to buy stars, or name stars after other persons. Some commercial enterprises purport to offer such services for a fee. However, such “names” have no formal or official validity whatsoever. Similar rules on “buying” names apply to star clusters and galaxies as well. For bodies in the Solar System, special procedures for assigning official names apply, but in no case are commercial transactions involved.

Some bright stars have proper names, with mostly Arabic, Greek, or Latin etymologies (Vega for example), but otherwise, the vast majority of stars have alphanumeric designations — consisting of an acronym plus either an index number or a celestial position. The IAU supports a Working Group on Star Names (WGSN), under Division C, which is cataloguing the names of stars from the world’s cultures, and maintaining a catalogue of approved unique proper names.

After ongoing investigation of cultural star names from around the world, the WGSN may adopt “new” official IAU star names from this list for those stars currently lacking official IAU names. This will help preserve astronomical heritage, while providing new unique names for the international astronomical community. Names for exoplanets and their host stars may be also approved by the IAU Executive Committee Working Group on the Public Naming of Planets and Planetary Satellites, as was done in 2015 via the NameExoWorlds contest.

As an international scientific organisation, the IAU dissociates itself entirely from the commercial practice of selling fictitious star names, surface feature names, or real estate on other planets or moons in the Solar System. Accordingly, the IAU maintains no list of the enterprises in these businesses in individual countries of the world. In the past, certain such enterprises have suggested to customers that the IAU is somehow associated with, recognises, approves, or even actively collaborates in their business. Which was of course false and unfounded.

Names assigned by the IAU are recognised and used by scientists, space agencies, authors of astronomical literature, and other authorities worldwide. When observing stars and planets or launching space missions to them, or reporting about them in the news, everybody needs to know exactly which location a particular name refers to. The names assigned by the IAU are those that are used.

These companies maintain their own private database containing stars from the catalogue, and associated star names. They’ll provide the customer with a certificate and instructions for finding it in the sky, but these names are not recognised by the international astronomical community. As a result, you won’t see your name appearing in a scientific research journal. In fact, it’s possible that the star you’ve named with one organisation, will be given a different name by another group.

There are a few objects that can be named, and recognised by the IAU. If you’re the first person to spot a comet, you’ll have it named after you, or your organisation. For example, Comet Shoemaker-Levy was discovered simultaneously by Eugene Merle Shoemaker and David H. Levy. If you discover asteroids and Kuiper Belt objects, you can suggest names which may be ratified by the IAU. Asteroids, as well as comets, get their official numerical designation, and then a common name.

The amateur astronomer Jeffrey S. Medkeff named asteroids after a handful of people in the astronomy, space and sceptic community. Kuiper Belt objects are traditionally given names from mythology. So what about extrasolar planets? Right now, these planets are attached to the name of the star. For example, if a planet is discovered around one of the closer stars in the Gliese Catalog, it’s given a letter designation.

An organisation called Uwingu is hoping to raise funds to help discover new extrasolar planets, and then reward those funders with naming rights, but so far, this policy hasn’t been adopted by the IAU. Officially allowing the public to name astronomical objects would be a good idea. It would spur the imagination of the public, connecting them directly to the amazing discoveries happening in outer space, and it would help drive funds to underfunded research projects. So, is naming stars legal? The answer is no.